WITH THE MARINES IN SOUTHERN AFGHANISTAN — For the war on terrorism, America has called in "The Varsity."
The task of entering the burned-out U.S. Embassy in Kabul on Monday and the war-torn Kandahar airport on Thursday night fell to the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment of the 2nd Marine Division, one of the most storied units in Marine Corps history.
"This is not a pickup team," said Lt. Col. Jerome Lynes, commanding officer of the Camp Lejeune, N.C.-based battalion. "These are young professionals who are part of a long, unbroken tradition of service."
That tradition includes combat at Belleau Wood, the World War I battle in which the Germans were so impressed by the ferocity of the Marines that they dubbed them "devil dogs," a nickname that stuck. The "Three-Six" also fought at Tarawa, one of the bloodiest but most decisive battles of World War II.
Among the four military services, the Marine Corps spends the most time telling its young recruits about its history and heroes. On Friday, infantry troops from Camp Lejeune now at Camp Rhino, the Marine outpost south of Kandahar, said their goal is to live up to the valorous reputation of the Three-Six.
"We have big shoes to fill," said Pfc. Edmundo Ramirez, 19, of Santa Ana, who was waiting to be flown by helicopter to the Kandahar airport in a second wave of troops.
"There is a lot of pride being part of Three-Six, something bigger than yourself," said Lance Cpl. Ryan Diamond, 19, of Hemet. "We've got a reputation to uphold."
It was Lynes, a Notre Dame graduate and football enthusiast, who updated the battalion's nickname to "The Varsity" to catch the imagination of young men who enlist in the Corps looking for structure and challenge.
"I thought I'd spend my entire life in the barrio," said Ramirez. "I needed a start, a step in the right direction to straighten out my life. That's why I wanted to become a Marine."
At Kandahar, the main task of the Three-Six will be to secure the airport as Navy Seabees work to make the 4,000-foot runway usable for military and humanitarian aid planes.
On Thursday night, members of the Camp Pendleton-based 15th Expeditionary Unit, guided by Afghan opposition fighters, took control of the airport's perimeter. Members of the Camp Lejeune-based 26th Expeditionary Unit were airlifted into the facility and began checking for booby traps and mines. The Marines entered the airport without resistance.
"We were a bit surprised at the lack of activity when we went through the town," said Capt. Dan Yoo, operations officer of the 26th.
Brig. Gen. James Mattis told his troops before the airport operation that they should attempt to buy any shoulder-launched Stinger missiles found in the possession of an Afghan in an attempt to disarm the population. The U.S. provided Stingers to Afghan rebels during their long fight with the Soviets.
"There are plenty still here, and we will pay big money for them," Mattis said.
As a sitting force around the airport, the Marines remain vulnerable to sniper and terrorist attacks. Beneath the airport is a web of tunnels where enemy forces could be hiding, Marine officials said.
"If you're a Marine, you study the lessons of Beirut every day," said Yoo, referring to the October 1983 terrorist bombing of a Marine barracks that killed 241 U.S. personnel.
The Marines from Camp Lejeune are confident they can prevent any intruder from getting close enough to the airport to inflict casualties. "The Three-Six never lets America down," said Ramirez.